30 April 2005

Making friends around the world

Via Apostropher, I learn that Jim Henly at Unqualified Offerings is concerned about how the US treats its allies.
... the Italians must hate our guts right now. Not only has Italy been a NATO ally for 50-plus years, not only were they an Iraq War Phase III and IV ally when the rest of the EU was cutting the other way, SISME itself has, as an organization, been the very special butt buddy of the CIA and crazier foreign policy entrepreneurs yet. And one of their intelligence officers gets shot dead by American troops and the US government won’t even let Italian investigators look at the car?
At least we won't have to worry about abusing our allies for long; at this rate, we soon won't have any left.

29 April 2005

Feminism

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about feminism.

I grew up reading feminist theory. It didn't even occur to me that anyone was uncomfortable with feminism, or would find it strange that I was a feminist, until I went to college.

It can be a tricky place to stand. I'm committed to having to have to do some extra work to establish my credibility as a feminist in feminist circles, but it does get tiresome. (For instance, I'd like to state for the record that announcing yourself as a feminist is entirely counterproductive as a ploy to get women into bed. Think about it, people.) I am very frustrated by women who refuse to accept a male feminist at all.

I'm quite proud of my working definiton of the ever-so-hard-to-define word “feminism”:

A set of ideas and practices predicated on these three assertions:
  1. We live in a pervasive system of gender which has profound effects on our lives
  2. This system of gender affects women in unjust ways
  3. We can and should work to correct those injustices

I think this definition is pretty good at including just about all of the strains of thought and practice that can reasonably claim the name “feminism.” Folks who aren't feminists fall down on one or more of these points, while just about everyone who is a feminist agrees on at least this much. From these basic agreements, you can take your feminist thinking and practice a number of different places.

Many people incorrectly believe that feminism regards women as “victims”. But few actual feminists would agree. I think this misunderstanding reflects limited exposure to feminist thought, typically to some of the dopiest manifestations of the identity politics strain of feminist rhetoric that has become significant in the last few decades. Though I think there are a few key lessons worth taking from identity politics, I'm generally opposed to that whole approach. I favour the rights-driven strand of feminist thinking, which has existed since modern feminism's beginnings in the 19th century.

My own personal strain of feminism adds these corollaries:

  1. This system of gender also affects men in unjust ways
  2. Don't kid yourself: the injustices women experience are bigger and more serious
  3. Still, we can and should work to correct gender injustice against men, too
  4. In fact, truly correcting injustice against women will ultimately require doing the same for men

But your mileage may vary.

28 April 2005

Zombies!

There's a BBC News story going around that's too cool to be believed.

Cambodian Troops Quarantine Quan'sul
There has been a small outbreak of "zombism" in a small town near the border of Laos in North-Eastern Cambodia.

The culprit was discovered to be mosquitoes native to that region carrying a new strain of Malaria which thus far has a 100 percent mortality rating killing victims in fewer than 2 days.

After death, this virus is able to restart the heart of it’s victim for up to two hours after the initial demise of the person where the individual behaves in extremely violent ways from what is believe to be a combination of brain damage and a chemical released into blood during "resurrection."

Cambodian officials say that the outbreak has been contained and the public has no need to worry.

General Ary Serey had this to say, "We have obtained samples of this new virus and plan to learn how it starts the heart and other major organs of the deceased. We intend to use this to increase the quality of life for all."

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice opposed the plan saying that the Cambodian government holds a great biological weapon and should destroy it immediately. Cambodian officials have yet to comment.

A United Nations team will be dispatched to Cambodia to confirm the safety of biological research in Cambodia.

In fact, I don't believe it; I think it's a little hoax. If you ask for the printable version, or to email it to a friend, you get a completely different story, "Syrian troops vacate Lebanese HQ," which begins with the subhead "Syrian intelligence agents have pulled out of their Lebanese headquarters in the border town of Anjar, reports say." Since the photograph with the story shows troops in front of a wall festooned with Arabic lettering, and the word "Anjar" in Roman letters, it's a fair bet that the printer and email version is the real story.

I fear that the Beeb is going to catch on and fix the story, so I have it archived here.

Update: The URL is bogus, too. Definitely a hoax.

27 April 2005

Cloning

Charles Krauthammer, in a column which Busy Busy Busy summarized as "To create a blastocyst for reproductive purposes and then change your mind and use it for life-saving medical research is OK, but to create a blastocyst for the purpose of life-saving medical research is a sin," says:
When you clone a (somatic, i.e. adult) human cell, you turn it first into an embryonic cell with which you can do two things: (a) let it grow (in theory, with implantation in a uterus) to become a cloned baby, or (b) take it apart very early to derive stem cells (research cloning).

Everyone opposes (a) because everyone agrees that cloning children is a monstrous idea that deserves to be banned.

Everyone agrees?

Everyone?

Everyone but me, I guess. This statement is entirely mysterious to me. Why is cloning children monsterous? I'm not talking about science fiction movie clones, I'm talking the real thing. Why is this bad?

Oh. It turns out that the Bush administration, at least, doesn't understand the distinction between real science and science fiction movies, as Gary "Amygdala" Farber informs us.

Diana Schaub, a Loyola College professor and adviser to President Bush, is convinced that cloning and embryonic stem cell research are evil. She says this belief was formed, in part, by watching Star Trek.

The show has "left me receptive to the view that mortality is, if not precisely a good thing, then at least the necessary foundation of other very good things," she wrote in an article last year. "There is something misguided about the attempt to overcome mortality."

Her interest in mortality and Star Trek could be regarded as the quirks of an academic if not for her position on the President's Council on Bioethics, a 18-member panel that advises Bush on some of the most polarizing subjects in society.

Good that the President is informed by such thoughtful bioethicists.

Is this what's going on with Charles Krauthammer, too? He's a doctor, for goodness' sake. Is he concerned that cloned children will turn out to be soulless automatons, or an evil reflection of the originals, or part of an insidious plot to enslave normal humans, or something? What's his problem?

26 April 2005

Rating system

In the past, I've praised Roger Ebert's policy of comparing movies to their ambitions, rather than to some kind of absolute scale. I learn that he has explained this explicitly in the course of Shaolin Soccer, "poster boy for my theory of the star rating system."
Every month or so, I get an anguished letter from a reader wanting to know how I could possibly have been so ignorant as to award three stars to, say, Hidalgo while dismissing, say, Dogville with two stars. This disparity between my approval of kitsch and my rejection of angst reveals me, of course, as a superficial moron who will do anything to suck up to my readers.

What these correspondents do not grasp is that to suck up to my demanding readers, I would do better to praise Dogville. It takes more nerve to praise pop entertainment; it's easy and safe to deliver pious praise of turgid deep thinking. It's true, I loved Anaconda and did not think The United States of Leland worked, but does that mean I drool at the keyboard and prefer man-eating snakes to suburban despair?

Not at all. What it means is that the star rating system is relative, not absolute. When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman (1978) is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then Leland clocks in at about two.

Shaolin Soccer, by the way, gets three stars.

25 April 2005

Cheaters never prosper

Well, often cheaters do prosper. But not this one. Via Content Love, I learn about serious smackdown on academic cheating.
I have a message for one person in this audience - I'm sorry the rest of you have to sit through this. As you know, my computer was stolen in my last lecture. The thief apparently wanted to betray everybody's trust, and was after the exam.
...
the thief, who thought he was only stealing an exam, is presently - we think - is probably still in possession of three kinds of data, any one of which can send this man, this young boy, actually, to federal prison. Not a good place for a young boy to be.

You are in possession of data from a hundred million dollar trial, sponsored by the NIH, for which I'm a consultant. This involves some of the largest companies on the planet, the NIH investigates these things through the FBI, they have been notified about this problem.

You are in possession of trade secrets from a Fortune 1000 biotech company ...

A bluff. I think. But a good bluff.

24 April 2005

Brooks

David Brooks is the guy who coined the metaphor of Red States and Blue States. He's now a columnist for the New York Times, turns up on TV news commentary shows all of the time, and is well known as the conservative pundit who knows how to talk to the left.

The lefty blogosphere hates him.

We hate him because he has a knack for somehow sounding reasonable, thoughtful, and concilliatory when in fact, if you take a minute and walk through his reasoning carefully, you see that his comments are full of poison. And blogs' link-quote-and-comment style was just made for catching Brooks' trickery. Busy Busy Busy's format of snarky one-sentence summaries of pundits' essays does a good job of revealing this; they hit almost every column Brooks does.

At this point, I assume that if Brooks says something, there's some nasty trap for the left lurking inside of it. If I don't see the trap, I expect that it will be just that much nastier when I finally figure it out.

His latest column is a masterpiece of his technique.

Justice Harry Blackmun did more inadvertent damage to our democracy than any other 20th-century American. When he and his Supreme Court colleagues issued the Roe vs. Wade decision, they set off a cycle of political viciousness and counter-viciousness .... it took the abortion issue out of the legislatures and put it into the courts. If it had remained in the legislatures, we would have seen a series of state-by-state compromises reflecting the views of the centrist majority that's always existed on this issue. These legislative compromises wouldn't have pleased everyone, but would have been regarded as legitimate.
....
Religious conservatives became alienated from their own government, feeling that their democratic rights had been usurped by robed elitists. Liberals lost touch with working-class Americans because they never had to have a conversation about values with those voters; they could just rely on the courts to impose their views. The parties polarized as they each became dominated by absolutist activists.
....
activists focused their attention on judicial nominations
....
Every few years another civilizing custom is breached. Over the past four years Democrats have resorted to the filibuster again and again to prevent votes on judicial nominees
....
Republicans now threaten to change the Senate rules and end the filibuster on judicial nominees
....
Harry Blackmun and his colleagues suppressed that democratic abortion debate the nation needs to have. The poisons have been building ever since.

It's an argument I've heard before, and I really do recommend reading Brooks' telling of it. It parallels what a lot of smart pro-choice lefties have said about how Roe stands on rocky legal footing, and therefore didn't decisively resolve the debate or the legality of abortion, resulting in a whole host of problems. His column could take you in ... especially if you haven't learned to smell a rat whenever conservatives try to trick you into thinking that the rancor of our current political rhetorical climate has its roots somewhere other than on the right. Or you haven't noticed that conservatives' rhetoric about "judicial activism" has an evil smell. But it's pernicious nonsense, and the lefty blogosphere has risen up as one body to tell you so. Here I am, for example.

It's worth reading the column just so you can properly appreciate the lefty blogosphere's response. Busy Busy Busy makes an offering and indexes links to lefty responses for your convenience. I imprinted on the Rude Pundit's rant on the subject because I read it first. But whatever you do, do not miss Michael Bérubé hitting a home run with the help of some judicious text search-and-replace.

Today's quote

From Kira April:
I'm not Jewish; I'm just a nerd.
Heh.

23 April 2005

Pesach special

Via 3Jake, I bring you Seder-Masochism. The story of Passover ... well, a story of Passover ... with superhero action figures.

22 April 2005

I guess I need a clogroll

My brother has joined me in the world of aimless date-stamped web publishing. He's not blogging, he's "clogging."
I have a new hobbie -- commuting. Since I don't have anything of real interest to write about, I will instead document my daily drive in excrutiating detail. Car log? Commuting log? Just Clog. Remember that you saw it here first.

The basics:

  • My commute starts in Glendale, California near Glenoaks & Alameda
  • I work in Santa Monica, near Colorado and 26th.
  • My car has been reliable so far, but has manual transmission. This must change.
My daily drive includes the 101/405 interchange in the San Fernando Valley. This is the worst highway bottleneck in the U.S. Although I'm a fan of hyperbole, this is not an overstatement -- according to the American Highway Users Alliance, this intersection sees 318,000 cars daily and has an annual delay of 27,144,000 hours. I'm not sure what that means exactly, but it's bad.
...
Anyway, stay tuned for the drama.
I'm transfixed. (And the 8 April morning edition is particularly charming.)

Sniper

So the nice people at Flexilis have built a long-range Bluetooth snooper device and published details of how you can make your own. The article features this magnificent illustration.

I am very disappointed that the article identifies him as John Hering, rather than referring to him by some cool Matrix name like Prometheus, Jato, or Chess.

21 April 2005

Coulter

So maybe you've been reading Time magazine's cover piece about Ann Coulter, and wondering if you've got her all wrong. Awww! She's not so bad!

Yes she is. Media Matters dismantles the story and Eric Alterman observes regretfully that as a result

Time’s cover story/whitewash of Ann Coulter, here, will make it impossible for serious people to accept what the magazine reports at face-value ever again.

20 April 2005

Tenth anniversary

Ten years ago today, the US suffered its first major terrorist attack on our own soil, second in severity only to 9/11.

What, don't you remember? We're in a War on Terrorism, right? Something like that would be covered on the news nonstop, wouldn't it?

Let me remind you. On 19 April 1995, Timothy McVeigh set a bomb at Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 167 Americans.

David Neiwert at Orcinus explains how it oddly doesn't seem to be “terrorism” if white people do it, and points out a few places that have covered the story.

Offscreen space

I'm a big fan of clever use of offscreen space. Tell me that Pulp Fiction was a piece of hackwork and I'll remind you that it's practically a movie about offscreen space: the briefcase, obviously, plus stuff like Vincent crashing his car and Butch choosing his weapon. Doubt that Spielberg knows what he's doing, and I'll remind you of a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Indy's cunning eye notices a wire running in through the top of doorframe ... but the scene is framed such that we can only see it when he points it out. Mmmm. Offscreen space.

So here's a nice little observation from Roger Ebert in his review of Ring Two.

In the scene where she's going down into the basement, we keep repeating, "it's only a basement," but I was surprised that the ancient cinematic techniques still worked for me. In all such scenes it is essential for the camera to back into the basement while focused on the heroine, so that we cannot see what she sees, and therefore, through curious movie logic, neither can she.
I'll be dipped --- I just never noticed this before.

Today's quote

From Thomas Friedman, via MKB:
If you want to drive a Hummer, go to Iraq.
Friedman is plugging a "geo-green" philosophy, arguing that neocons will turn pro-environment when they realize that reducing our dependence on foreign oil will help us pressure oil-rich Arabs to play nice. As usual, he's maddeningly half-right. But I do love the resonance of this little quip about the Hummer.

19 April 2005

Blown away

Sorry, gang, but this ordinarily high-toned blog has to take a turn for the purient today.

You cannot make this stuff up. Rush Limbaugh is very concerned about blowjobs.

Limbaugh was responding to a statement made by Gore that his new [cable TV] venture would "reflect the point of view of young people."

“What the hell is that, Al?” Limbaugh asked. “What the hell is the point of view of young people? Blow jobs, that's what they're doing out there. They're out there getting oral sex all day long, that's what they're talking about.”

Limbaugh went on to blame former President Bill Clinton for making oral sex “the number one sport in high school today.” He also referred to Gore's venture as “a BJ network” and “the oral sex channel.”

Rush seems to think that oral sex is a bad thing, which moves James Wolcott to eloquence in pointing out that oral sex is, y'know, a good thing.

Limbaugh seemed to be implying at the top of his voice that blowjobs are an integral part of the liberal agenda, an argument which he may want to rethink. The popularity of blowjobs is difficult to metric but undeniable; they cause little harm and zero unwanted pregnancies. If the plentitude of blowjobs is part of the Clinton legacy, millions owe the former president a debt of gratitude and an annual pilgrimage to the Clinton Memorial Library in Arkansas.

Yet, like so many products and pleasures, blowjobs aren't evenly distributed in society. It's a renewable natural resource not everyone gets to enjoy, and I was struck by the vehement tone of Limbaugh's tirade. He sounded bitter.

And since we're on the subject, I'd like to state for the record that this blog advocates oral sex. And not just recieved by men, dig?

More seriously, though, this does seem to suggest that my old point about the psychosexual dimension of contemporary politics is disconcertingly on-target.

18 April 2005

Food

Having just come back from a week in America, Sunday's Doonesbury rings true.

Today's quote

From Maxspeak, a whimsical explication of Bush administration policy.
Under socialism, the government takes into its hands the means of production, assuming ownership of capital assets. This control has within it a great capacity for mischief, in the likelihood of distorting the disposition of the Nation's productive assets to diseconomical ends.

Under the George W. Bush Excellent Privatization Plan for Social Security, the Government borrows money and purchases capital assets on your behalf, selecting how much of each asset you will buy, dictating the process whereby your portfolio is transformed from equities to bonds to an annuity, charging you a stiff interest cost for the purchase, gutting what remains of your public pension, and guaranteeing you a feeding tube until the Lord calls you home. This is far superior to socialism, since you will be unconscious during the entire process.

Silly, but true.

Sea monkeys!

X-Ray specs! Charles Atlas! And yes, Hostess treats!

17 April 2005

Serious about the war on terror

It seems that the State Department has been releasing an annual report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism,” since 1985. They've decided to discontinue it this year, and not publish the draft they had ready. Why? Has terrorism become unimportant as if this year? Did we win the war in terror while I wasn't looking?

Maybe it's this fact that the report was to include.

... there were more terrorist attacks in 2004 than in any year since 1985, the first year the publication covered ...

Thanks, Secretary Rice. I can see why the President promoted you.

15 April 2005

Anniversary

Sixty years ago today, Bergen-Belsen was liberated. Richard Dimbleby reported for BBC radio:
This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
Lots more behind the link at the BBC anniversary site.

Liberty and capitalism

In honor of tax day, I'd like to dredge up some comments I originally wrote for another online forum, stepping back to explain to a libertarian how my ambivalence about capitalism related to my conception of liberty.

I see the creation of the greatest possible liberty of all individuals as the purpose of society. This includes both negative liberties — freedom from constraints — and positive liberties — resources giving the freedom to act.

For the purposes of this discussion, I would define “government” as a set of game rules in the society that create an explicit agent of that society's organizing principles. That's a bit abstract, I know, and there's a risk of defining “government” a little too broadly that way, but it should serve. Similarly, I would define “the economy” as the whole system of creation and distribution of goods and services. The “economic model” is the set of game rules used by the society to run the economy. It should be apparent that these three elements have sloppy boundaries.

If we take liberty as the measure of our society, then how is that expressed in the economy? The first order of business of the economy is providing for the essential needs of the members of the society, because without these needs met those people lack the capacity to exercise any liberty.

Now if you employ the very useful economic game rules of money and private property, you get markets. Throw in corporations as legal entities, limited liability for corporate investors, and industrial technologies and you get an economic model that we call “capitalism;” the exact flavor of capitalism depends upon the specifics of your rules for money, property, corporations, and industry — and how you involve government.

Capitalism is an appealing way to try to provide for people's essential needs because it tends to generate a lot of wealth. It also offers a lot of liberty to how the wealthy act in the economic sphere. These are good things that we should not give up lightly.

But it also tends to distribute that wealth so unevenly that you have a number of people who don't get their needs met. Medical care is the obvious and common example in the American example, but in more extreme cases it can reach to food and shelter. This is doubly distressing in light of the wealth generated by the system. Capitalism also sharply curtails the liberty of many more people who feel that their choices are limited by fear that their resources will be catastrophically limited unless they make significant sacrifices to their employers.

Looking at the obvious options to capitalism, I don't see anything resembling a satisfying alternative, but I do see evidence that alternatives are possible.

On the one hand, sovietism is the most obvious 20th century attempt to offer an alternative to capitalism. (I use the term "sovietism" to dodge the terms "communism" and “socialism” which are loaded with even more multiple meanings than “capitalism.”) Sovietism includes money, limited private property, industry, and government ownership of industrial tools of production. But it turns out that sovietism both tends toward government intrusions against negative liberties and fails to produce much wealth, so sovietism is a double-barreled failure.

Proponents of laissez-faire varients of capitalism, that feature weak governments and strong corporate liability limitations, commonly base their opinion on the argument that this is as different from sovietism as possible, and therefore good.

But I think that this ignores the range of different societies and economic models you can enact. You can have fuedalism, which doesn't really have money as we know it; banditry, which doesn't have industry; nomadism, which barely even has the idea of property; Nazi industrialism and Japanese industrialism, two very different systems that are capitalism in the broadest sense but which have strong government involvement in the economy; Scandanavian socialism which invokes a lot of the same rules as capitalism but with some serious limitations mediated by government on corporations and private property.

All of these alternatives have problems, but they demonstrate that our options are not simply sovietism over here, laissez-faire capitalism over there, and a range of shadings in between. I believe that we can do better than all of these options, if we start by thinking that all of these possible game rules are creations which should be measured by the degree to which they serve our liberty.

14 April 2005

Not very terrifying terrorists

I used to read Jon Carroll every day, but have slacked off. Katherinesummer brings his report about Unitarian not-so-terrorists to my attention.
Beware! Unless you people shut up and begin acting like grown-ups with brains enough to understand the difference between political belief and personal faith, the Unitarian Jihad will begin a series of terrorist-like actions. We will take over television studios, kidnap so-called commentators and broadcast calm, well-reasoned discussions of the issues of the day. We will not try for "balance" by hiring fruitcakes; we will try for balance by hiring non-ideologues who have carefully thought through the issues.

We are Unitarian Jihad. We will appear in public places and require people to shake hands with each other. (Sister Hand Grenade of Love suggested that we institute a terror regime of mandatory hugging, but her motion was not formally introduced because of lack of a quorum.) We will require all lobbyists, spokesmen and campaign managers to dress like trout in public.
...
People of the United States! We are Unitarian Jihad! We can strike without warning. Pockets of reasonableness and harmony will appear as if from nowhere! Nice people will run the government again! There will be coffee and cookies in the Gandhi Room after the revolution.

Maybe I need to pick up the habit again. The column is getting cross-posted everywhere, and via Dragon Lady Flame, I learn that there's a Unitarian Jihad Name Generator already available.

13 April 2005

American absurdism

The Simpleton tells us that Mary Worth comics are heir to the absurdist literary tradition.

Mary Worth is a classic two-panel absurdist play, in which two or three characters exchange cryptic intelligences to the amazement of one of them in the iambic second panel. While these discourses appear to make sense, they in fact impart no information to the reader, who is left to marvel as the inscrutability of the cosmos.

Who knew?

12 April 2005

Bad architect, bad bad!

Not only are Frank Gehry's buildings ostentatious giant sculptures instead of useful buildings, they're a hazard to nearby pedestrians.

Get yourself a job as a sculptor, Frank, and have 'em put your work behind velvet ropes. For the safety of people, not the buildings, mind you.

Armour

Steven Den Beste argues something that I've long suspected, that since it turns out that we won't have to fight the battle of the Fulda Gap, the era of tank warfare is ending.
In response to increasing battlefield firepower, horse cavalry reduced the armor it used. Have we reached the point where mechanized armor should do the same?

The US Marines have a saying: Killing tanks is fun and easy.

I'm enough a dilettante to know that I only know a little bit about this sort of thing. There are plenty of smart people in the US Army who seem to think that the tank has a bright future, and I don't really understand their thinking.

But Den Beste's argument is certainly fascinating and compelling. Basically, he says that it's easier to build better weapons to attack tanks than it is to create stronger tanks, so that we've now crossed the threshhold where it makes sense to use tanks against a well-equipped force. He also observes that air power has completely eclipsed tanks' role as mobile artillery. His prescription: lighter, faster, less armoured fighting vehicles.

11 April 2005

Radical

Andrea Dworkin
1946-2005

Truly radical feminist

The gods are again challenging me in my resolution to speak kindly of the dead in the moment of their passing. It's not easy: Andrea Dworkin basically devoted her life to describing how my desires are evil. Here in San Francisco, we don't have a lot of patience for that kind of talk.

But. But. As a bloke who has often found himself in the odd position of being a man telling women that yes, I am a feminist, and I think if you better understood what feminism means, you would be more sympathetic toward feminism, I've had to do a lot of defending of Dworkin in my time.

Of course she's angry. There's a lot to be angry about. No, you don't have to accept everything she says in order to be a feminist — I sure as hell don't — but you do have to think about it. Because she's a radical, in the true sense: striking at the root. Asking the deep questions. If you don't face the questions she raises, you're ignoring some unhappy truth.

Via Content Love I learn that Susie Bright has managed to square the circle and eulogize someone who became, tragically, her opponent.

Andrea presented herself as a street fighter intellectual, a bohemian freedom fighter, and someone who wanted to get to the bottom of things. That remark about Malcolm X is apt. Malcolm pointed out "The problem is WHITE PEOPLE." Dworkin said, “The problem is MEN.” And for all the holes that can be poked in that cloth, there is something about that grain that is absolutely true, when you are the short end of the bolt.

Go read what she has to say.


Update: Ariel Levy has another good remembrance.

Big government

Yglasias has an interesting thought:
Right now the Republican unwillingness to have any taxes or right their big spending laws in a way that makes sense is sort of wrecking the country, but someday the Democrats will win again and find it much easier to fix and expand programs the GOP has already put in place than they ever would have to create these things in the first place.
Hmmnn. The Republican plan is that ineffective policy will make us disgusted with government in general first. Since we'll be broke, we'll decide to dismantle government rather than fix it. But Yglasias' observation has a ring of truth. Maybe it's a race?

10 April 2005

Story

Candy is dandy, but Zarathustra is peachy.

What kind of fruit would he be?

Bachelor Number One? “Something that will make a really great pie. And that's a promise. I am one dependable fruit.”

Bachelor Number Two? “I'd be plums, I'd be sweet and red and very juicy. And honey, I'm always ripe.”

Bachelor Number Three? “I am a north wind to ripe figs. I am a prophet of the lightning and a heavy drop from the clouds. I am an intoxicated sweet lyre-- a midnight lyre, a croaking bell which no one understands but which still must speak”

I didn't move but I was suddenly aware of my thighs, of the insides of my arms. Bachelor Number Three had a voice like a cloud speaking, traces of roar and thunder and waves held together with honey-cello. But what did I know about him? He might be ridiculous, I thought. He might be sublime.

When a man is mysterious enough, when I have no idea which things will be good or bad or where the problems will be or even what will happen next, it makes me think that anything might be possible.

“Num Ber Two! Num Ber Two!” the female audience chanted during the Thinking Music.

Number One hugged and kissed me. Number Two slipped a note with the number of his hotel room down the front of my dress. Number Three stiffly bowed.

He was older than the others. His eyebrows were shaggy and his mustache needed trimming. He wore a long black coat, which would never, in the course of our acquaintance, be removed.

He bowed and shook my hand. Then, lifting his eyebrows, he peered at it: a hand, yes, in his hand, a hand attached to other parts of a fairly beautiful woman with whom he was about to spend a weekend in Las Vegas. That is where they were sending us, to the glittering neon desert, to try our luck.

“Ah,” he said. “What a long and beautiful hand! It is the hand of one who has always distributed blessings. But now it holds fast him you seek, me, Zarathustra.”

If you like it, there's lots more.

NASA

Clive Thomson at Collision Detection deliciously describes the recent launch of a satellite from the International Space Station.
This week, though, our DIY space program outdid itself when it launched a new satellite ... by hand. That's right: Salizhan Sharipov grabbed a foot-long, 11-pound sputnik, wandered out onto the surface of the Space Station, and just sorta tossed it off into the howling void.
...
I admit I'm impressed at the sheer low-fi ingenuity of the launch. But it's clear that the space program is becoming less and less governed by physics and engineering, and more and more by, I don't know, punk rock or something.
I don't know that I would say "punk rock," though. More like those old Heinlein stories where the working class heroes in the boiler rooms of spaceships would be flying through space, reading numbers off of needle gauges and making calculations on butcher paper with the aid of sliderules. Still, cool either way.

09 April 2005

Voting your conscience

Ken MacLeod has a plan.
I'm going vote for a candidate who has no hope of winning the seat. In fact, in the unlikely event of this candidate getting a much bigger vote than last time, the result might be to get the Tory challenger elected. That's a risk I'm willing to take. I'm not doing it for the candidate. I'm doing it for the party. If enough people vote for this candidate's party we have a real chance of electing a government that won't take us into another war. Yes, I know - this is pure gesture politics. I'm going to vote my conscience and hang the consequences.
If you read the paradoxical details of his plan, it suggests that the body politic in the UK is healthier than it is here.

08 April 2005

Art

The Floor was Gone

Matthew Borrett draws dream rooms, creatures, and more.

My laptop's desktop was plain white until I found his site; now it's plain white with a rotating set of mysterious rooms inset in the centre.

07 April 2005

I guess we have to invent it

Faustian Wish informs us that Science Direct has an intriguing article from the Journal of Knowledge Research that I'm not sure how to ... well ... read part of the abstract:
We proffer an epistemological, ontological, and ecumenical analysis of the informatics zeitgeist surrounding librarians and so-called information scientists. A fuzzy systems tautomerism and transformative hermeneutic lexiae with stemming metadata shows that behind an axiometric normalization of mutually reinforcing moieties, institutionalized metaphors, and naïve liturgical dogmas lies nothing more than gormandized aphorisms and pseudoscientific quanta.
The title of the article, published this year, is "Information does not exist." For $41.62 you can read it. But really, who needs to buy the article when the abstract says it all?

06 April 2005

Baby names

Golly, I forgot that I didn't post this earlier. Check out this cool info visualization tool passed on to me by the no-longer-bloggin' 3Jake. She recommends trying out "Sara," and enjoying the way it's smart enough to know you also mean "Sarah."

You may also want to try having fun with the bad baby names site that I blogged a while back.

Today's quote

From Black Reaver.
Why a degree in philosophy?

Because are you really ordering fries with that?

Didn't laugh? I have help.

05 April 2005

LOTR analysis

Looking for an excuse to break out those Lord of the Rings DVDs you bought when they were new?

Some time ago I discovered Greg Wright's many thoughtful and provocative essays about the films and their ideas. They are by far the best commentary I have seen on the films. Wright looks closely at the subtle choices that Jackson made to create a film adaptation true to the spirit of the novel but with its own themes; drawing on a deep understanding of both Tolkien and how the films work, he often points to contrasts between the two that yield good insight.

I have a few examples, observations, and a little suprise about Wright's interests ...

For instance, in a discussion of Elrond and Aragorn in Fellowship that he wrote after only that film had been completed, he makes some prophetic observations about how Jackson wanted to portray Aragorn.

Oddly enough, in a version of Tolkien's story where almost every act of faith is replaced by an act solidly supported by knowledge and fact, Jackson has elected to remove the certainty of Aragorn's fate with a Modern's portrayal of self doubt. And he has done this because he sees Aragorn as the central character of The Lord of the Rings: the third installment is called, after all, "The Return of the King". For Tolkien, Aragorn is heroic because he is a Hero. For Jackson, Aragorn is a hero because he becomes one.

Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn, has been questioned about his portrayal, and tells the press that Aragorn is less about "being" and more about "becoming." We certainly see this as The Fellowship of the Ring progresses. After Gandalf falls in Moria, the Hobbits collapse in grief outside. It is at this moment that Aragorn takes charge, encouraging Boromir, Gimli and Legolas to keep the Hobbits moving. Even Boromir's attitude toward Aragorn begins to change at this point, and in his dying breath in Aragorn's arms he declares, "I would have followed you, my brother: my captain, my king!"

Again, it is in Jackson's creative choices that we find clues to his intent. Yes, he has left out much of Tolkien's character-defining backstory for Aragorn; but the invention of three key scenes (Elrond's conversation with Gandalf, the grief of the Hobbits outside Moria, and Boromir's death in Aragorn's arms) makes it clear that Jackson's Aragorn is a Man who will have to win the hand of his betrothed. In this way, and through the expansion of Arwen's role (discussed in the February Feature, below) Jackson has managed to turn The Lord of the Rings into more of a romance than was intended by Tolkien. Is this for good or ill? That all depends on how much of a purist one is. For me, it makes the story work better as a movie ...

Wright's commentary is also centrally concerned with another question ...
... it makes the story work better as a movie; and I look forward to further transformation of Aragorn, which in turn points to the "transformation by the renewing of the mind" that is possible for all in Christ.
... because Greg Wright is a minister, and his articles appear on HollywoodJesus.com. But don't let that scare you. Each page on the site features this cheerful little admonition ...
Everyone welcome! Hindus, Jews, Christians, Wiccans, Muslims, New Agers, Atheists, Agnostics, Gay, Straight. Come in. Enjoy. Post your views!
... and clearly they really mean it. Writing throughout the site references Christian ideas frequently, but in a way that doesn't prevent fruitful reading by sinful unbelievers like myself. Wright's comments in particular are a good demonstration of American Christian intellectual life at its best, using Christianity as the ground in which to talk about the big moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions. Take, for instance, his discussion of the Stewards of Gondor:
Why did Tolkien invent his history in that way? Why does Anarion's line fail? Why not have a king on the throne of Gondor instead of a Steward?

First, stewards are a historic reality for the British. King James I of England, among others, was a Stuart: of Scottish ancestry, and steward of the throne of Scotland. James I of England was also James VI of Scotland, a monarchy which, like Gondor's, had failed of succession and passed into the hands of stewards. After a time, the family adopted the name Stuart, the Scottish form of "steward," to indicate their status. Not surprisingly, many of the Stuarts perceived their role differently from others who sat on the throne of England; for while they may have been Kings or Queens in title, their very name reminded them that they were preserving the kingdom in the name of the rightful monarchs, and not under their own right or authority.

Second, Tolkien was very much interested in the spiritual symbolism of stewardship. The words "steward" or "stewardship" appear over twenty times in the King James translation of The Bible (yes, that King James, the Stuart). In the New International Version, by contrast --- translated some 350 years later --- the same words appear less than half that frequently, and "stewardship" not at all. Since the time of the Stuarts, the popular understanding of good stewardship has diminished somewhat. The term expresses the spiritual reality that the things which we have are not our own: that they are given us by God to manage for our own good and the good of others. Because God is the true owner of all things, we merely act on behalf of God, and really have no "rights" whatever when it comes to position or possession --- just like the Stewards of Gondor.

Food for thought even if you aren't a Christian. And a very comforting voice in this time when it feels as though America is gripped in a kulturkamph between moral absolutist Christians and cynical cosmopolites.

Joe Bob says check it out.

04 April 2005

Today's quote

Daniel Gross (via DeLong) says:
The greatest --- and seemingly most obvious --- historical lesson of the Erie Canal: the necessity for direct government involvement in building the expensive commercial arteries that have been so vital for economic growth. Left entirely to its own devices, the private sector likely never would have produced the Erie Canal, the railroads, the interstate highway system, or even the Internet.
Yep.

03 April 2005

Hierophant

Karol Józef Wojtyła
1920-2005

Pope John Paul II

I followed Pope John Paul II only well enough to know that I don't have a coherent opinion about him. Ken MacLeod is similarly ambivalent, and also makes an interesting observation.

Like the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, he became a figurehead of an inchoate global humanism that has little to do with what he (and the others) specifically stand for. Fidel Castro is an awkward fourth in that company, but --- like it or not --- he belongs in it. All four of these old men have their roots in the Cold War, of which they are the last men standing. It's a measure of the strangeness of the New World Order that they all, in very contradictory ways, have become icons of its discontents.

Christopher Hitchens, of course, says nasty things about him.

But, again, I try to hold to tradition and speak kindly of the dead, at least in the moment when I learn of their passing. So let me praise an odd and inspired project of his papacy: he wanted every living Catholic to have an opportunity to lay eyes on him in person if they wished. Which gave rise to the seemingly endless public appearances around the world, and meant that he was seen by an estimated billion human beings — far more than any other person who has ever lived. A strangely modern acheivement for the leader of such a midæval institution.

02 April 2005

Brownout

I'm going on the road. My access to the internet will likely be spotty through Thursday the 7th, so I may not post.

Think you'll die without my witticisms? Check out my magnificent archives ... or take a peek into something new in my blogroll. I link that stuff for a reason, you know.

NCLB

A lot of smart folks are puzzled by why education people seem to all be upset about No Child Left Behind. Matthew Yglasias, for example.
A progressive fellow explained to me yesterday that the real reason he doesn't like No Child Left Behind is that it's a long-term stealth plan to destroy the public school system and he's just baffled as to why some liberals don't see it that way. I'm a bit baffled as to why he sees it his way. From where I sit, NCLB is by no means the Be All And End All of federal education policy, but it was a step in the right direction. But its critics, whether earnestly motivated by this fear of public school apocalypse or just by teacher's union self-interest, have taken up the habit of launching some pretty nonsensical attacks on the law.
His friend shouldn't be baffled: the problem is subtle. I'm at the point where if someone who knows more than I do about a subject tells me that the Bush administration is doing something that is phenomenally bad policy, I don't need to ask for a detailed explanation any more --- it's so consistent with the things I do understand well, that I can spare myself the research and trust that the Bush administration is screwing things up.

But if my faith in Bush administration malice and ineptitude isn't enough for you, I have the Mineapolis/St. Paul City Pages giving a good description of what's wrong with NCLB.

And if you're too lazy to read that, I'll just walk through the highlights with you ...

Any school receiving federal Title I money (ostensibly earmarked to improve the performance of disadvantaged students) faces increasingly harsh sanctions if its test scores fail to meet state-defined standards for making adequate yearly progress.
The trick is in how the standards for adequate yearly progress (AYP) are measured.
Under NCLB, students taking the assessment tests are broken down into eight different subgroups such as white, Hispanic, eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and special education. Each subgroup, as well as the school's student body as a whole, is measured according to its proficiency and participation rate on the tests. This enables teachers and administrators to better understand which students are most in need of extra assistance --- and penalizes schools for not having already provided it.

Large schools that have at least 20 students in each subgroup (at least 40 for special education) can literally have their test results parsed out and measured in 37 different ways. If just one of the subgroups fails to meet just one of the standards (which include a two-thirds rate of proficiency and a 95 percent rate of participation by each subgroup on both math and reading assessments), then the school will be listed as having failed to meet AYP performance goals.

So even very good schools are likely to end up on the bad list, because it's statistically inevitable that some subgroup will perform poorly. Soon we'll have the govenment telling us that the public schools just can't perform well. Those lousy public schools! They can't get anything right!

Oh, and it gets better.

The required proficiency rates for math and reading will inexorably climb over the next decade until, in 2014, we arrive at the theoretical endgame, where the only options are failure and perfection.

That's right: Every student in every subgroup must be proficient on every assessment in order for schools and districts to be in compliance with NCLB.

It's Lake Wobegon: all the children have to be above average.

So what happens when a school doesn't meet its AYP target?

After two years of AYP failure, the school must offer students the option of transferring to another public school in the district and bear the cost of transportation. After three years, the school must also offer low-income students tutorial services through a public or private agency approved by the state.
Astute readers have probably already correctly guessed that these are unfunded mandates.
After four years, the school district must take corrective actions such as removing personnel or changing the curriculum in the school.
If this were only going to happen to bad schools, it might make sense. But recall that this is going to happen to just about every school, eventually, because of the absurd AYP targets. So the schools will be in churn and turmoil.
And after five years, the district is obliged to blow up, or "restructure," the school by replacing most or all of its staff or by turning over operations, as the U.S. Department of Education puts it, "to either the state or to a private company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness."
Ahem. So the state is going to be running all of these schools. How? And how is that going to help?

Or private companies could ride to the rescue, I see. Yeah, that makes sense. The testing in NCLB will have shown that the public schools aren't just performing. Why, private enterprise will look pretty good. And if so, why not just use existing private schools? You could just have a system of vouchers for choosing the one you want ...

Whoops. So much for supporting the public schools.

01 April 2005

New Google product!

Google Gulp, the beverage for people with a thirst ... for information!
At Google our mission is to organize the world's information and make it useful and accessible to our users. But any piece of information's usefulness derives, to a depressing degree, from the cognitive ability of the user who's using it. That's why we're pleased to announce Google Gulp (BETA)™ with Auto-Drink™ (LIMITED RELEASE), a line of "smart drinks" designed to maximize your surfing efficiency by making you more intelligent, and less thirsty.

Think fruity. Think refreshing.
Think a DNA scanner embedded in the lip of your bottle reading all 3 gigabytes of your base pair genetic data in a fraction of a second, fine-tuning your individual hormonal cocktail in real time using our patented Auto-Drink™ technology, and slamming a truckload of electrolytic neurotransmitter smart-drug stimulants past the blood-brain barrier to achieve maximum optimization of your soon-to-be-grateful cerebral cortex. Plus, it's low in carbs!

There's lots of information on the Google Gulp site, including a FAQ:
1. How does Google Gulp work?

Well, to comprehend the long version of this answer, you'd need a PhD (from Stanford, natch). The short version is, our brains process data by sending electrical impulses called neurotransmitters between billions of neurons via axons running between synapses, much the way buses travel between stations, or MP3 files travel between felonious suburban teenagers. The molecular compound that fuels Google Gulp speeds up this process by, among various startling feats of neurochemical legerdemain, limiting the activity of the enzyme monoamine oxidase. You think faster --- and feel better.

What's more, through our patented real-time DNA-scanning process, Auto-Drink™, Google Gulp is actually able to "take a picture" of your genetic profile, reconfigure its molecular composition on the fly, and subtly alter your brain's intricate mosaic of axonial patterns in order to facilitate even faster cognitive processing.

2. Wait --- you're saying Auto-Drink™ changes my brain chemistry?

Um, yeah --- but for the better.

3. Isn't that kind of dangerous?

Well, none of the lab rats who've been pounding this stuff for the past eight months have keeled over yet, which we find fairly reassuring. At any rate, you should be aware that by popping the seal on the twist-off Gulp cap, you send a wireless signal to Google's servers indicating your irrevocable acceptance of the Google Gulp Terms and Conditions, which do include the possibility, however remote, of hideous genetic mutation resulting from your consumption of this product. We're pretty sure you won't die, though ....

It's good to know that Google is thinking deeply about end user liscense agreements.

Announced today, of course.

Beep! Beep!

Via Warren Ellis, Chuck Jones' ten rules for Road Runner cartoons.
  1. Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going "Beep! Beep!"
  2. No outside force can harm the Coyote --- only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products.
  3. The Coyote could stop anytime --- IF he was not a fanatic. (Repeat: "A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim." - George Santayana)
  4. No dialogue ever, except "Beep! Beep!"
  5. Road Runner must stay on the road --- for no other reason than that he's a roadrunner.
  6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters --- the southwest American desert.
  7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
  8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
  9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
  10. The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
Mmmmm. Structure. Structure is the key to comedy. You could time an egg with the crossing of subplots in an episode of Seinfeld, I tell ya.